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A Review of: Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett
by James Roots

Few of the early twentieth-century entertainers resisted the compulsion to gussy-up their backgrounds. And if they didn't do it themselves, publicity teams would be brought in on their behalf by studios or agents to rewrite prosaic history into lurid melodrama. Tracking the truth of their lives through such jungles of misinformation was hardly worth the efforts of would-be biographers before the Internet arrived.
Consider the time, money, and sweat Simon Louvish might have had to expend 25 years ago in order to put the lie to the received wisdom that a pubescent W.C. Fields smacked his father over the head with a shovel and walked off to starve in the gutters for his art. The London-based Louvish would have had to take an extended leave of absence to travel to New York, Philadelphia, and various locations in California, spending months poring over century-old newspapers and museum artifacts, and very likely still wouldn't have excavated the truth.
Today's Web-savvy Louvish instead plundered on-line archives from the comfort of his home in his spare time. Equally important, he simply connected with Fields maniacs in New York, Philly, and California, whom he would have been highly unlikely to ever find in pre-Internet days. These fan-boys leapt at the chance to flaunt their devotion to Fieldsian trivia by voluntarily tracking down ancient phone directories, police blotters, civic records, and newspaper archives available through websites, providing Louvish with all the most obscure documentation he could possibly need.
The result , Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields (1997), is an outstanding biography that was also one of the first to utilize these kinds of resources to uncover the truth behind deeply-embedded Hollywood mythologizing.
Louvish followed it with Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers (1999) and Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy (2001), both of which used the same methodology to dig up fascinating new information. He put all previous biographers in the shadow.
Now, with Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, Louvish has turned to the Canadian expatriate who established the Keystone Studio in 1912 as the world's first studio devoted entirely to film comedy.
Of course Sennett didn't invent slapstick; it had been around at least since Aristophanes. But he put low comedy on celluloid (or to be more accurate, on nitrate) for the masses, and set up the archetypes exemplified by Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, Saturday Night Live, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, the Wayans Brothers, a million TV sitcoms, and just about any other American film comedian including the early Woody Allen (Bananas, Sleeper).
Sennett's philosophy of comedy was simple: "We get an idea," he explained to a disconcerted Charlie Chaplin, "then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy." This ad-lib approach is verified by the Keystone scripts which Louvish excerpts in chronological order: in the early years, they consisted of mere half-page synopses, and even 20 years later they were expanded to only 17 pages.
The plots, such as they were, invariably consisted of two guys getting into a scrap over a girl. In post-production, their rough-and-tumble antics would often be wrapped around the filming of an actual event such as a car-race, a Shriners parade, or in one memorable case (A Muddy Romance) the draining of a lake. At the climax of many of these films, the famed Keystone Kops would careen irrelevantly with high-speed incompetence as a guarantor of audience laughter. And that was it.
The Keystone films haven't aged well. Yet it is hard to over-estimate the impact and importance of these primitive, almost bestial 24-minute speedball "farce comedies" (as they were billed). More than any other kind of film, they built the mass audience for the cinema. Their lowbrow hilarity, fearless ethnic characterizations, cartoon violence, upending of authority figures, and speechless pantomime offered America's huge World War One immigrant population a very easy and inexpensive entry route into their new society, both as performers and as audience members.
Every great or even merely good comedian of the Golden Age of Silent Comedy, with the exceptions only of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, cut their teeth with Sennett. Even Carole Lombard and-ye gods!-Bing Crosby started out there. It is beyond dispute that Sennett had the greatest eye for film comedy talent in history.
But who was Sennett? We know he was born in Quebec, was raised mostly in Connecticut, and that he aspired to a Broadway singing career before breaking into films as a comic actor at the legendary Biograph Studios. We know also that along the way, he changed his family name from Sinnott to Sennett because kids mocked the original version as "S'nott".
Louvish recognizes the transformation from S'nott to Sennett as "the key to appreciating the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question arising from our story: how did the gauche Canadian immigrant lad, whose sole ambition appeared to be to sing grand opera, mutate into the manipulating, all-powerful Hollywood boss, the archetypal movie mogul?"
By his own admission, Louvish is unable to satisfactorily answer that expensive question. Unlike in his biographies of Fields, the Marxes, and Laurel and Hardy, the recovery of roots is stunted because in Sennett's case there simply aren't enough extant records, even with all the 1897 East Berlin phone-books and 1908 Broadway showbills accessible on the Internet.
Instead of being piqued by the mystery, Louvish has chosen to take extensive detours through the lives and work of Sennett's clowns. Roughly 250 pages focus on such worthies (and they are worthies) as Ben Turpin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, Billy Bevan, Charlie Chaplin and others who passed through Sennett's gates. The justifications for these detours can be valid-who knew Mabel had Quebec roots, just as her on-and-off fianc Mack did?-but they can also verge on the preposterous, as when he implies that the colossally uninventive Bevan was ripped-off by the infinitely more creative Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy.
What makes Louvish's surrender astonishing is that he finds the key to the mystery, turns it over in his mind, decides it is valid, and then closes the book. Hell, that's where the book should have started! In his largely fictional autobiography, King of Comedy (1954), Sennett cemented the romantic rationale for his life-long bachelorhood by exaggerating his doomed love for Mabel Normand. As Louvish describes it in one of his many felicitous lines, Sennett made "a great love story out of two people who had plenty of opportunities to get together but didn't."
The fate of that affair was fixed by Mabel supposedly catching him in bed with another actress, a shock from which the deceptively nave Normand never recovered. The reality was most likely that Sennett was secretly gay and was caught in bed with an actor, which definitely would have crushed the clueless girl he had been stringing along for years.
Sennett affected to be a man's man while simultaneously being a momma's boy. He lived in an athletic club with other men, never married, was probably the only Hollywood mogul not to use a casting-couch for would-be starlets; instead, he invited male visitors to strip and join him in his giant studio bathtub-and was allegedly caught-out by Chaplin and Slim Summerville.
Moreover, although Louvish seems unaware of it, Anthony Slide in Silent Players (2002) reported an extraordinary interview with Keystone actor Ralph Graves in which the latter raved about his "unholy relationship with Mack Sennett: two years of my life, every day, every night, were spent with Mack Sennett."
Sennett's hard-ass shanty-Irish Catholic background would have been enough in itself to have driven him to hide his homosexuality. He had overtly suspicious "beard" affairs with at least two other women besides Mabel. And living on the edge of exposure at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in many states could have precipitated both his S'nott-Sennett transformation and the hatred/fear of cops that underlies the relentless comic humiliation they suffer in his movies. His secret homosexuality is the key not only to his life but his art.
Why Louvish fails to be energized by this thesis is baffling. Perhaps he had just been bored into inertia. Unlike the subjects of his previous books, Sennett was a businessman, not a comedian, and Louvish clearly doesn't have his heart in reporting the corporate machinations that completely dominated Sennett's life from 1912 until his company's collapse 20 years later. At one point he devotes several pages to quoting great swatches of incomprehensible business documents without providing elucidation, as though telling us, "Here, this is what Sennett was doing for 20 years. Who cares, eh?"
He also gets sloppy with details; when you do your research via the Internet, the ease of access can foster a lack of diligence. Fortunately, the errors are usually insignificant enough to make only the fans irritated. An example is his constant identification of Roscoe Arbuckle by his screen-character's name of "Fatty". That makes as much sense as referring to Mike Myers as "Fat Bastard Myers".
One attribute that makes Louvish's biographies valuable is his insight into the times, specifically the 1890s-1940s, and how they shaped characters. The post-WWI era was one of great rebellion even as American society became more repressive (it was, after all, Prohibition times); he sees this conflict reflected in Sennett's habit of hiring great rebels like Chaplin and Frank Capra and then strictly controlling them. Naturally, they eventually rebelled against him, too, and left for artistic freedom and more money-which inspired his sarcastic motto, "Start with Sennett, get rich elsewhere."
Louvish also does an excellent job of defining the tragedy of Mabel Normand, the most highly-regarded comedienne of the day, whose fatal excesses of behaviour he astutely attributes to the fact that she was part of the very first generation of film idols and thus had "no compass to orient [herself] in the storms of movie-goers' curiosity and adulation." Stars like Mabel "had no predecessors from whose experience they could benefit. This was more difficult for the women, in an age not far past the Victorian."
Another very interesting point he raises is that, "We are used to reading about the problems silent actors had adjusting to the talkies of the late 1920s, but during the long dawn of the cinema [i.e., the first decade of the twentieth century], the problem was the other way around." Stage actors found it very hard to move from speech-is-everything live theatre to speech-is-nothing silent film. Sennett developed the somewhat odd conviction that this made drama impossible in the cinema, and it is a major reason why he opted to satirize the genre mercilessly and repeatedly, despite his adoring friendship and early working relationship with its greatest exponent, D. W. Griffith.
When Sennett's comedy empire finally collapsed in 1933, the life went out of this roaring man overnight. He spent the remaining two decades of his existence sitting in hotel lobbies watching people, while (ugh!) dipping his cigar in coffee and sucking it. Perhaps he knew the next generation of comics-the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Fields, Wheeler and Woolsey, Bob Hope-owed their avenues of success to his efforts, even if they would not acknowledge it. Like a good pioneering Canadian boy, he had blazed the trail for future generations that would not remember his name.

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